North Carolina law gives a judge authority to require one party to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees in family law matters that include claims for child custody, child support, post-separation support, and/or alimony. Typically an award of attorney’s fees is favored when there is a significant disparity in the incomes of the parties. The underlying objective is to require the party who has greater economic resources to contribute to the other party’s attorney’s fees to “level the playing field” and ensure that both parties have equal access to legal counsel. However, regardless of the parties’ financial condition or circumstances, awards of attorney’s fees are
discretionary so there is no guarantee that a judge will require one party to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees.
When determining whether to require one party to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees, a judge must have sufficient evidence presented to be able to make specific findings to support the decision.
In order to be entitled to an award of attorney’s fees in connection with claims for child custody and child support, the judge must find that the party seeking attorney’s fees: (1) is an interested party who has acted in good faith; and (2) has insufficient resources to pay the expenses of the legal action. In awarding attorney’s fees in child support matters, the judge must make an additional finding that the party required to pay child support was not providing adequate child support at the time the child support action was initiated.
Attorney’s fees may be awarded in connection with claims for post-separation support and alimony if the judge must find that the party seeking support: (1) is a dependent spouse who is entitled to post-separation support or alimony; and (2) is unable to defray the expenses of the legal action.
A judge does not have statutory authority to award attorney’s fees in actions for equitable distribution of marital property and debts. When a divorce related legal action includes claims for equitable distribution, the judge only can award attorney’s fees in connection with the claims for child custody, child support, post-separation support, and/or alimony.
There are other situations that can arise in family law cases in which a judge has authority to require one party to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees, such as when a party is deliberately delaying or obstructing the proceedings, when a party incurs attorney’s fees to require the other party to return separate property, or in certain contempt matters when a party has failed or refused to comply with an order of the court.
When a judge decides that an award of attorney’s fees is appropriate, the judge must then determine the amount of attorney’s fees that is reasonable. The judge does not typically award attorney’s fees in whatever amount is requested, but rather will consider certain factors such as the amount and reasonableness of the attorney’s fees that are being requested, the scope of the legal services, the skill required, the time spent, and the attorney’s hourly rate compared to other attorneys in the geographic area. Depending on what the judge determines is fair and reasonable, the other party may be required to pay all, or some, of your attorney’s fees.
Daphne Edwards focuses her practice exclusively on family law and appeals. She is committed to diligently representing her clients and will seek a recovery of attorney’s fees in circumstances where it is appropriate. However, she understands that payment of attorney’s fees can sometimes be difficult for both parties. From the moment Ms. Edwards is retained, you can have confidence that she will give your legal matter the attention it deserves and work with you to meet your goals in an efficient and cost-effective manner.